Crimes of the Future(6/4/2022)
I really love that David Cronenberg is still making movies… in theory. I certainly like that he gets a king’s welcome at Cannes and that he can still continue working while a new generation of filmmakers (including his own offspring) are also flaunting his influence. However, if I’m being honest the truth is that I didn’t really like either of Cronenberg’s last two films and haven’t really been all that jazzed by his work since he made Eastern Promises in 2007. I had hoped that this would be a triumphant comeback given that it’s clearly a return to making “extreme” cinema but unfortunately I think it suffers from a lot of the pacing deficiencies that befell a lot of his other recent work for me. The film is set in a future world where, for unclear reasons, human bodies have rapidly evolved to no longer feel pain and some people have begun growing redundant and unneeded organs and this has led to a boom in performance art involving live surgeries and the like.
That’s a pretty outrageous concept and yet this is not really the walkout inducing shocker that the stories about its Cannes premiere would suggest and it’s actually rather coldly clinical in its “shocking imagery,” which is certainly in line with Cronenberg’s M.O. but which feels almost excessive here. Cronenberg was at his best in the 80s and 90s, and the tools of cinema in that time served him well, particularly the 35mm film and practical effects. Digital photography really serves him well and I’m also not sure that modern actors quite feel right in his work. More importantly I think he’s a guy who, like Terry Gilliam, might be at his best when he’s fighting it out with studios and under some obligation to meet commercial demands. When left to his own devices he makes these movies that really lack forward momentum and are almost annoyingly quiet and uncompromisingly weird, but not in ways that feel particularly innovative anymore. That’s not to say there are interesting ideas to be found in Crimes of the Future, there are, but the film doesn’t really have the budget or scope to really explore the full extent of them and probably wouldn’t try even if it did. Those ideas are probably enough for me to give the movie something of a “gentleman’s C-” but for a movie that features a dude with multiple ears all over his body and his mouth stitched shut the whole thing was just kind of oddly boring.
**1/2 out of Five
The opening title card of the new Pixar movie Lightyear reads “In 1995 Andy got a toy. That toy was based on a movie. This is that movie.” That pretty concisely explains what this movie is and how it’s supposed to relate to the Toy Story franchise and the film’s marketers likely would have saved themselves some trouble if they’d put something like that in the trailer. Really though you’re probably better off not thinking much about Toy Story at all when seeing this because that’s really not very important. It think it’s pretty obvious that Pixar just wanted to make a space adventure movie and landed on this weird Buzz Lightyear connection as a way to both do that while also feeding the Mouse House’s insatiable need to exploit pre-existing franchises. However, I think that franchise fervor may have backfired on them this time because it’s left cinemagoers rather confused about what this project is supposed to be but also because the Buzz Lightyear character seen in the Toy Story franchise was never really supposed to be a “cool” spaceman so much as a pastiche of the 50s/60s conception of what a spaceman would be, so he’s an occasionally awkward fit in this film which plays much more as straight science fiction adventure.
However, the straight science fiction adventure they’ve given us is pretty serviceable. The film starts with a whole colony ship getting stuck on a hostile planet and then needing to find a way to get off with space ranger Buzz Lightyear being the test pilot for their new space fuel, requiring him to go on light speed test flights that essentially force him to travel forward in time through time dilation. Eventually one of these flights move him forward to a point where his colony is being imprisoned by hostile robots and he needs to find a way to defeat them. The film’s use of advancing time is more interesting than you’d expect from your ordinary family film and the movie’s humor mostly avoids the annoying pop culture based nonsense that kids movies often barter in, so Pixar’s reputation as the prestige animators of Hollywood is not really put in danger by this. Still, I can’t help but feel like this movie is only “okay” rather than the kind of ambitious storytelling you expect from them. Were this a live action science fiction film I’m not sure its concepts would seem all that special and while there are some decent set-pieces to be found here it’s not exactly a stunning action movie either. I’d say its messages are also a bit confused. Its duel morals appear to basically be: learn to give up when a goal starts to take too much of a toll on your personal life and also learn to put up with the mistakes of the incompetent even when they threaten to put everything you do in danger, and I found the handling of both of these themes kind of lacking. This movie is generally watchable and crafted with some care, but it’s not going to be one that sticks with you and as an experiment franchise extension it’s rather confused.
*** out of Five
The Black Phone(6/27/2022)
There have been over sixty films made from the writings of Stephen King and while that well has hardly dried it is interesting to note that Hollywood now seems more than happy to open the adjacent well that is the oeuvre of King’s son, who writes under the nom de plume Joe Hill. The most recent and perhaps most acclaimed adaptation of a Joe Hill story to come along is The Black Phone, from Sinister director Scott Derrickson, whose returning to horror after a diversion into the MCU to direct the first Doctor Strange movie. The story and film are not very shy about their King family lineage as this is in many ways a callback to something like The Shining in which a horrific situation is made stranger since a kid in the middle of it has some sort of psychic powers they don’t understand but also with a bit of the “nostalgic child” narrative of something like “It” or “Dreamcatcher.” The film is about a young teenager who is kidnapped by a serial killer called “The Grabber” and imprisoned in a room with scant resources and needs to find a way out, and in doing so is aided by a supposedly disconnected phone that’s in the room through which his latent psychic powers allow him to talk with the ghosts of The Grabber’s previous victims.
I didn’t dislike The Black Phone but I don’t think it ever fully worked for me either and it’s a little hard to put my finger on why. A big part of it is that, while the situation it depicts is theoretically horrific, I don’t think the movie ever really plays like a true horror film. Frankly I didn’t care much for “The Grabber” as a villain, possibly because I think his masks look kind of dumb. The kabuki-like wood masks he wears give him an over-the-top look along the lines of slash movie killer, but this isn’t a slasher movie, almost every evil thing The Grabber does happens off screen. He would have frankly been a lot more scary if he actually looked and acted like a real life serial killer of the kind you see in true crime documentaries than as a masked psycho. Beyond that I think the movie just leaves the confines of the room the kid has been locked in too much. There’s a whole sub-plot with his sister that isn’t uninteresting in and of itself, but it interrupts the tension being built in the basement and ultimately doesn’t affect the story as much as you think it will. The film is titled appropriately, however, as many of the film’s best moments involve conversations on the titular phone. These are probably the scenes where this most resembles a true horror film rather than a sort of particularly dark survival/prison escape story and occasionally invokes some rather creepy imagery. Again, I didn’t dislike the movie: it has an eye for detail I appreciated and is generally well acted and staged, but I feel like it could have been a whole lot more effective with some key adjustments.
*** out of Five